Wildcats resemble domestic tabby cats but are much more muscular and have well defined black and brown stripes. With wider jaws and more heavy-set than their domestic counter-parts the wildcat also has a thick coat and comparatively flat face.
The wildcat is the most common and widely distributed of all the wild cat species. There are thought to be five subspecies across its range across Africa, Europe and Asia. House cats are thought to have been domesticated from wildcat species about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent at the time of the rise of agriculture when harvests needed protecting from grain-eating rodents.
The European wildcat used to be widespread across the continent but huge declines between the late 1700s to the mid 1900s has led to a fragmented, relict distribution. It is possible that as a result of hybridization with domestic animals that very few genetically pure wildcats remain.
Usually solitary, nocturnal creatures, wildcats have a gestation period of 63-68 days, after which they give birth to a litter of up to 8 kittens, on average 3 or 4.
Unfortunately wildcats often breed with feral or domestic cats giving birth to fertile hybrid young.
All small members of the cat family, including the wildcat, are almost exclusively carnivorous. Their favourite prey is rabbit although they will also eat fish, young lambs and ground-nesting birds.
Wildcats are found in a wide variety of habitats, from deserts and scrub grassland to dry and mixed forest, absent only from rainforest and coniferous forest. European wildcats are primarily associated with forest and are found in highest numbers in broad-leaved or mixed forests with low densities of humans.
Wildcats are most threatened by domestic cats. Hybridization is widespread; there may be very few genetically pure populations of wildcats left. The huge numbers of feral cats also compete with wildcats for prey and territories, further exacerbating the situation.
Other threats include significant human-caused mortality: in Europe, road kill can be a great problem. The species is also still considered a pest in Scotland and is illegally persecuted, whilst general predator control measures in a number of European countries may result in this species being killed by accident when other, more common, species are being targeted.
The wildcat is now fully protected across most of its range in Europe but the problem remains of identifying the true wildcat populations in order to protect them.
Paul O’Donoghue, UK
UK mammal grant
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